JORDAN WEISSMANN

Athletes, yes / Students, no

The now-infamous Rosa Parks essay says a lot about college sports

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The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill has already been embroiled in a scandal for allowing its athletes to enroll in fake courses for easy credit. Now, the controversy has a rather potent visual symbol to go along with it: a 146-word, ungrammatical essay on Rosa Parks that earned an A-.

Mary Willingham, who spent a decade tutoring and advising UNC’s jocks before turning into a whistleblower, unveiled the paper during an interview with ESPN. Apparently, academically troubled UNC athletes were encouraged to sign up for “paper classes” — essentially no-work independent studies involving a single paper that allowed functionally illiterate football players to prop up their GPAs, thus satisfying the NCAA’s eligibility requirements.

Here’s the entire text of the Rosa Parks “essay,” which was titled, “Rosa Parks: My Story” …

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

It seems fitting that this text started making the rounds just one day after a National Labor Relations Board official ruled that football players at Northwestern University were not primarily students but rather employees of the school. That’s not to say Northwestern was running a similar scam (Disclosure: I’m an alum). But the point is that anybody who thinks that most big-time college athletes are at school first and foremost to be educated is fooling themselves. They’re there to work and earn money and prestige for the school.

And really, what are the chances that other schools aren’t mimicking UNC? In 2010, before Ms. Willingham started feeding information to reporters, UNC’s football program, for instance, had a 75 percent graduation rate, lower than some far more competitive teams today. It’s possible those schools simply try harder and find more scholarly candidates for their o-line. But I somehow doubt that.

Jordan Weissmann is senior business and economics correspondent for Slate.



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